The Ascetic Insight of W. S. Merwin

The American poet W. S. Merwin, who turns ninety this year, has for decades written his scanty, unpunctuated poems from a palm forest on the remote north shore of Maui. Merwin bought the property in 1977, and began restoring the ancient trees lost when loggers and the commercial pineapple and sugar farmers started to move in more than a century ago. “After an age of leaves and feathers / someone dead / thought of this mountain as money,” Merwin writes in “Rain at Night.” He has reclaimed the mountain, and much else, for poetry. His poems, written in an environment refashioned by his hard restorative work, are adjuncts of that work, and operate according to their own stringent verbal restrictions. Wallace Stevens called his collected poems “The Planet on the Table”; Merwin’s work is more like a terrarium on the table, its elements balanced and tended in an eerie simulacrum of reality.

The Essential W. S. Merwin” (Copper Canyon) condenses the poet’s nearly seventy-year career into a single volume. Merwin’s poems, like his Maui conservancy, make their mark on the world by recording its effacement; they reveal what a person finds when he imagines himself as having been superseded. Here is perhaps his most famous poem, “For the Anniversary of My Death”:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

The poem’s power is clinched by its title and opening line; almost anything could follow that bracing conceit. It must have been a struggle, once Merwin had come to this startling idea, to decide when and how to deploy it. He was in his thirties when the poem was written. It faintly mocks its own stodginess—it is a kind of pleasure, after all, to imagine your own death, provided you’re young and healthy. A pleasure and an opportunity: the poem strongly implies the seduction plot that it doesn’t mention outright. The candles wave, the garments fall away, and this man’s “shamelessness” meets, in the aura of his personal doomsday, “the love of one woman.” Something deep in me resists this sexy self-extinction rhetoric. Soft-core, low-fi, and Aquarian, Merwin’s asceticism has always had about it the prowess of a sophisticate.

From the beginning, he wanted to mesmerize. In the forties, under the spell of his Princeton teachers John Berryman and R. P. Blackmur, he perfected a learned, ominous, allegorical poem, mopping up for the high modernists. In “A Mask for Janus” (1952), his début collection, chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, the thread count is high but the starch is unbearable. In one poem, “Dictum: For a Masque of Deluge,” Noah, post-flood, finds he has his work cut out for him:

At last the sigh of recession: the land
Wells from the water; the beasts depart; the man
Whose shocked speech must conjure a landscape
As of some country where the dead years keep
A circle of silence, a drying vista of ruin,
Musters himself, rises . . .

It helps to think of the “drying vista of ruin” as an image of war, but this animatronic Noah, who weirdly “musters himself” while the beasts “depart,” is a clunky vehicle for expressing majesty. When the batteries in Merwin’s early methods ran out, mercifully he never replaced them.

It took Merwin several volumes before arriving at a style barren and bleak enough to make his pronouncements on life’s barrenness and bleakness feel persuasive. “The Lice” (1967) was his breakthrough. It remains one of the indelible books about Vietnam: the images coming out of the war suggested, to Merwin, the utter defenselessness of a traditional culture against the fury of modernity. It seems to me that Merwin wanted these new poems to channel apocalyptic prophecy without suggesting that he was its source. Add punctuation to these lines from “The Hydra,” and Merwin sounds like his Noah action figure. Strip it back out, and we have the distinct power of the poet at his finest:

I was young and the dead were in other Ages
As the grass had its own language

Now I forget where the difference falls

One thing about the living sometimes a piece of us
Can stop dying for a moment
But you the dead

Once you go into those names you go on you never
You go on

The phrases are like driftwood scattered on the sand which nevertheless suggest the outline of a form; their dispersal on the page is the source of their power. Punctuation would suture the strewn bits together, like the prosthetic joints you find linking the real bones in a brontosaurus skeleton. The effect is especially strong in that last stanza: a period or a colon after “hesitate,” and the range of its power is drastically narrowed. Those final two lines work as contradictory imperatives, like the commands in the story of Mr. Fox: Be bold, but not too bold.

Merwin’s verse often gives the impression of language scavenged from the elements, its power reckoned only as its meanings assemble, phrase by phrase, against the white of the page. Simple astonishment, one of the rarest of all literary experiences, is the most potent outcome; in Merwin’s best poems, he seems brought up short by his own discoveries. It is another advantage of his style that it can end without ending, as it does in “James”:

News comes that a friend far away
is dying now

I look up and see small flowers appearing
in spring grass outside the window
and can’t remember their name

The beauty of this elegy is in its pair of mirrored participles, “dying” and “appearing”: the mind toggles between memory and perception, between the “far away” but emotionally pressing matter of the friend’s death and the close but suddenly blurry appearance of the flowers, which now have a new name, James. The flowers and the friend exist in a permanent reciprocity established by this little lyric. An instant later, perhaps, Merwin remembers the flowers’ actual name; the poem suspends us between recollection and forgetting, right in the spot where elegy is most poignant and effective.

Merwin’s poems seem made from a kit, a highly personalized but weirdly plain repertoire of details: rain, light, mountains, water, wind. Since his fundamental stance is passivity, Merwin’s language can’t feel as though it were summoned from too much effort of learning, or from casually gleaned perception or overheard conversation, which would concede the existence of actual other people. The “I” finds itself, instead, in the combination of those primeval elements: wind across the water, light on the mountain. This “I” has emotions, but they drift in from elsewhere; the vessel is empty until sadness, or grief, or expectation blows in and settles briefly inside it.

It is not hard to imagine how this kind of writing could go awry, and Merwin’s attempts to expand his range of subjects to the social or the overtly political often expose his limits. But a sly ars poetica, “Song of Man Chipping an Arrowhead,” makes his case:

Little children you will all go
but the one you are hiding
will fly

The “little children” here are mortals too young to exist woefully in time, but also shards of flint that “go” in service of the core function of the stone. As with any art of imposed constraint, we look for the moments when the constraints are defied. Once you carve the arrowhead, it can “fly” on its own; its nature as a stone has been transformed, just as the nature of these words, bought for nothing, is transformed. When Merwin’s poems don’t move along this axis of transformation, when they start too broad or loquacious, they lose their power.

Yet anybody who wants to learn about Merwin’s hardscrabble, very American childhood as the son of a violent minister, or his time as a scholarship student at Princeton, or his successful forays into the worlds of American and European peerage should read his wonderful prose memoirs. My favorite is “Summer Doorways,” which is mainly about his time in France, where he keeps a home. Merwin’s prose is lush, companionable, and funny, alert to the ironies of everyday life and utterly unlike his flinty poems. You surmise, reading his memoirs, that poetry is for him a quite distinct animal, specialized, like an arrowhead carved from stone, from every use but its intrinsic one. As he has held poetry to its essence, he has deepened it. And his poems in old age attain a special kind of power only available to an artist who works the same furrows over and over.

Merwin’s recent work often recalls his monitoring intelligence from its mission in the landscape to the wreck of his own aged body, itself now a part of the world of matter so resistant to human transformation. The fresh appraisal of his old face, in “To the Face in the Mirror,” draws on the tradition of mirror poems extending from Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and John Ashbery. The eye you see in the mirror is lit up by the sight of you; the mind, revelling in the transaction, records it, but in the process involves itself inside the exchange:

so how far
away are you
after all who seem to be
so near and eternally
out of reach
you with the white hair
now who still surprise me
day after day
staring back at me
out of nowhere
past present or future
you with no weight or name
no will of your own
and the sight of me
shining in your eye

how do you
know it is me

The poem reminds us, as the image in the mirror reminds Merwin, of how much has gone on inside the mind and how little trace its activity leaves on the material world. Merwin’s insistence on a poetry of imaginative utility, against the encroachments of decades of literary fads, has succeeded in giving his imagined worlds some of the tangible pleasures and horrors we associate with real ones. Like Stevens, whose old-age poems are perhaps the greatest ever written, Merwin can say he “recomposed” the constituents of his vision. But he also planted and tended a palm forest that is now permanently protected and open to the public. His poems, like that forest, are a kind of time preserve. Until you can make it to Maui, the poems will have to do. Many of them will be around as long as the palms.


 ♦Published in The New Yorker magazine- the print edition of the September 18, 2017, issue, with the headline “The Ascetic.”

♦Written by Dan Chiasson, a contributor to The New Yorker since 2007. He teaches English at Wellesley College. His most recent book of poems is “The Math Campers.”

♦Source: The New Yorker

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